Sunderland’s August in review: Settling in after a nightmare start

Matt Wilson takes a look at the opening month of Sunderland’s season

Position: 18th
Played: 4
Won: 1
Drawn: 1
Lost: 2
Points: 4
Managers: 1
Fit Senior Strikers: 0
Dogs Saved from Drowning: 1

They say the league isn’t won or lost in August. Well that’s just as well. As the above proves, more drowning dogs have been saved so far this season than we’ve had fit, senior strikers… the stats don’t lie.

That’s the basics covered, but let’s delve a little deeper and see if there’s been more to Sunderland’s August than just this.

An opening day fixture against newly-promoted Ipswich Town was our reward for failing to beat Luton Town over two legs in the play-offs and a fairly familiar line-up lined up with Jobe Bellingham and Hemir Semedo the only new faces.

Sunderland started well, showing much of the quick interplay and attacking intent that characterised our style last season. Hemir struggled as the lone front man, looking every inch the 19-year-old inexperienced striker he is and was essentially bodied by the Ipswich centre-halves, before being hooked after 58 minutes.

“Hmmm” we all thought, the recruitment team will have to rethink this one.

Meanwhile, in utterly inevitable news, former Sunderland loanee Nathan Broadhead opened the scoring just before half-time, while George Hirst doubled Ipswich’s advantage shortly after the break. Things went from bad to worse then got slightly better as Trai Hume was sent off only for Dan Neil to pull one back to make for a tense finish. It wasn’t to be though and the season started with defeat.

After the game, Mowbray exclaimed “You have to put the ball in the net and I do think we need more options at the top end of the pitch and the club are trying really hard to do that” More on that later.

Next up was a first away day of the season, as Sunderland travelled to Deepdale to take on Preston North End, the setting for a comfortable 3-0 away win as recently as May.

Only-fit-and-available striker Hemir was immediately out of the side in favour of new-boy Bradly Dack playing as a false 9 and despite a bright start, we found ourselves behind after 25 minutes. Jack Clarke equalised shortly after, both winning and converting a penalty, only for Preston to retake the lead courtesy of the wonderfully named Mads Frökjaer-Jensen.

It was enough to win the game, meaning Sunderland started a season with back-to-back league defeats for the first time in seven years, and the second game in a row in which we dominated possession but came out of it with nothing.

Onto the next home game which saw Rotherham United visit the Stadium of Light. Mowbray kept faith with the same line-up that started the Preston game but an isolated Dack quickly swapped places with 17-year-old midfielder Jobe early in the first half… the latest square peg to be forced into the round hole marked “STRIKER”.

It was Rotherham, however, who took the lead meaning Sunderland had gone behind in each of their three games thus far.

But before the crowd could really comprehend what a truly terrible start to the season this had been, the striking experiments suddenly started paying off. Clarke turned inside and picked out Dan Neil at the far post who nodded back across goal onto the head of Jobe who guided the ball through the fumbling hands of Johansson.

Sunderland dominated from this point on and went ahead shortly after the break. Ekwah won the ball back high in the opposition half, Clarke fed Dack who squared it to Jobe who simply had to stroke the ball into the corner for his second. It felt inevitable given the superiority in their play but after the applause had dissipated a collective sigh of relief spread around the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland could easily have added to their lead with Clarke and Hemir both going close and Bellingham almost grabbing a hat-trick. Could he be the long-term answer to our striking woes? No. Clearly not, but as stop-gaps go he was looking like a pretty good one.

Our biggest test yet came next as we travelled to the romantically named Coventry Building Society Arena to take on… Coventry, funnily enough. Sunderland still had no senior strikers, despite Mowbray repeatedly promising one would arrive “tomorrow”, so Jobe continued as stop gap striker a-go-go in a tightly contested 0-0 stalemate.

Mowbray admitted he’d have been pleased with a point going into the game but was disappointed not to sneak a win given how the match panned out. He concluded “We don’t have a killer number nine and I’m not sure we will by the end of the window… they’re not falling off trees are they?” Unless Michael Branch was about to come out of retirement, he’s not wrong.

Four points from four games. Not a great start but the performances had all hinted that better was to come, if only we could strengthen the side where it needed it. The month concluded with 24 hours still to run of the transfer window and rumours swirling of a variety of unknown youngsters coming in and known oldsters heading out.

Ross Stewart was by this point heavily linked with a move to Southampton. Were we really about to part with our only proven, albeit currently injured, goalscorer? And to the very same side we were due to play the following day? And who would we bring in to replace him?

Well that all happened in September so I’m not covering it… but you can read Graeme Atkinson’s brilliant piece on all that jazz here.

Otherwise I’ll be back in a month or so to review whatever more delights September brings.